"Be still, Alaz,"I hissed softly to the red haired man walking closely alongside me. He'd been fidgeting ever since we'd left the ship in port and felt that he was giving the appearance of a nervous groom instead of a newlywed husband, a facade we were trying to pull off. I wasn't sure how well it was working, Alaz was tall and lanky-looking, like he hadn't grown into himself quite yet. It was nearly true, he wasn't much older than I was -nineteen to his eighteen year old 'bride'. Who, also happened to be five inches shorter than him and with wild blonde hair. At least we were both tan from our years at sea. We paused a herder passed through the alleyway and Alaz began to shuffle his feet idly. I elbowed him when no one was looking.
"Ouch!"He grumbled, narrowing his eyes at me as he rubbed his side,"That smarted, Mina."
"Be still. We'll be back on the ship soon enough. And don't forget the code names!"I said before we continued on the way. We had settled in a small port called Mayhelm. I myself had never seen the village before, though some of the crew had said it was quite lovely. They were right. The village was tiny, but quaint with small, close-together huts surrounded by picket fences. Every home harbored a small garden with which the Adencia Spring they were all in bloom. The settlement was more of a trading port for all travelers, which on the main street of the village many booths with brightly colored silks had been set up where traders called out their fares. I would not have minded living in such a place. But we were here for business, not real estate.
"I don't even know why we have to go to him for help,"Alaz grumbled,"He's not exactly noted for his character."
Alaz was right, Captain Ashkerr was a world renowned back-stabber with his business partners. But we didn't have any choice,"Our business has never exactly been noted for character, Alaz. He's going after a great..piece, and he needs more..associates for his assistance. And the doors to the chamber are impenetrable even by magic. He has a key to get us in. He needs us, and we need him." I kept my voice low as we strolled so no one could overhear us.
Alaz mulled this over, thinking over the price,"How much?"
I hid my smile of triumph at convincing him, before whispering back,"Nearly priceless."
"And we're going half and half right?"
I snorted,"Absolutely not."
He stopped dead and gave me a look of disbelief.
I grinned at him and playfully smacked his arm,"We're going to steal it for ourselves as soon as we get out of there."
His grin mirrored my own, he walked with me again, murmuring,"You already have a plan?"
"Of course,"I replied, pausing to look over some brightly colored silks. The merchant looked up from his work to study my face.
"You look very much like Princess Neelah,"She said slowly, picking up a gold scarf,"But you would look even better with some gold to set off those pretty eyes."
"Thank you,"I murmured softly in reply,"I have heard that Edenia has fallen troubled times."
The woman nodded and clucked, shaking her head hopelessly,"Yes, it is believed that the kingdom has fallen to the Old One's followers,"She finished in a hush, leaning in,"I believe Edenia's era has passed."
Fire blared in my heart, but I kept my gaze steady,"Hopefully not, for the princess's sake."
"The Badger's Den?"Alaz asked suddenly, pulling me away from my thoughts and wonders. I glanced up at him suddenly and nodded,"Yes."
He nodded as well before gently taking my arm in the way that only couples do and led me into a small and smoky looking lodge. Despite the brightness outdoors the lodge was very dark and rather empty looking. I glanced around the grimy establishment and felt out of place in my fine gray dress.
We must have looked out of place for the man at the bar scrutinized us with beady eyes for a few moments longer than I would have liked. He was as grimy as the counter he stood behind.
"Can I be of service to you?"He finally assented, his voice rough.
"Yes,"Alaz answered genially,"A Lord Ashkerr is expecting my wife and I."
"Hmph,"The man grunted in response, turning his gaze to me."Why would a Lord bring such a fine Lady to a lodge to meet? Sounds like bad manners to me.."
I quickly recovered with a warm smile,"Lord Ashkerr is my uncle. I heard he was here for business and I did not want to trouble him by arranging a meeting at his home, which is quite far from here. We would appreciate it if you would show us to his room.."I attempted another one of my smiles.
His eyes lingered on mine momentarily and he finally cleared his throat and glanced away, looking to Alaz. It would be rude to be caught staring at a married Lady. I hid my smirk. He stepped out from behind the bar,"I will let him know his niece and her..husband have arrived."
As soon as the man left Alaz glanced at me, rolling his eyes,"Really?"
"It got us in, didn't it?"I replied just before the man returned. Though I hoped it got us into the presence of Ashkerr, and not a trap.
"The Lord shall see you now."
Despite the tiny front room of the lodge the quarters were quite grand. Alaz and I stepped into a great room, -probably the best of the lodge. It was furnished with polished red wood and a scarlett carpet covered the floor. There was a grand desk located in front of a great fireplace, at which a short, grim man was sitting. I could recognize the dirty, expressionless face in my sleep. Ashkerr was small, but intimidating. He had beady, dark eyes and a pale, sharp face, like his skin had been pulled too tight over his bones. Black tattoos ornamented the side of his face, a sharp tribal insignia which contrasted shockingly against his pale skin. For a couple of moments only the crackling of flames filled the room.
Ashkerr was the first to speak,"Come, sit down. I trust you have had a long journey."
Alaz was hesitant, glancing around the room carefully for any closets or floor curtains-spots where men could be hiding.
"I assure you that it is only us. Pirates are a dying breed. Why would I turn in a brother and sister?"Ashkerr asked, frowning a little as if we had insulted him.
I gently touched Alaz's arm before walking forward and sitting in one of the overstuffed, but smaller chairs facing Ashkerr. Alaz followed.
"We do not mean to insult your trust, Captain Ashkerr,"I apologized,"It is just difficult to come to a business meeting when you do not know what exactly the business concerns..."I trailed off, hoping he would elaborate. But I had already heard rumors of what Ashkerr and his crew were going after, I just wanted him to confirm them..
Ashkerr chuckled,"Then why would you come to my aid? I could have just as easily been a trap. You are either very brave, or very foolish."
"Times are tough for our kind,"I side-stepped,"The lands have become more established and better protected now. Many of our number have left us for better trades. We could not go after a prize now, so we have decided our best choice is an alliance with another crew as honorable as yourselves."
"I thank you for the compliment, but word of a small crew is funny coming from you, Captain Mina,"Ashkerr said, staring at me.
My stomach dropped but I managed to hold my composure, thankfully as did Alaz,"I believe you have me mistaken, Captain Ashkerr..I-"
He quickly cut me off,"Do not play games with me, Captain. It is hard not to recognize a head that has a thousand pounds price for it."
Alaz couldn't stop himself from looking at me. He knew our plan was pointless now. I was at a loss for words..I couldn't argue my identity with this man. He did not seem to mind and only continued.
"You are both revered and despised for your deeds, both by pirate and civilian. So you do not have to explain your reason for hiding your identity to me. I understand. But as I mentioned before, I wonder why you would show up to such a vague meeting and put your life and your crew mate's in danger.."
"I..have heard things, of what you were going after,"I murmured, leaning forward,"Something of Adencia's.."
"Ah,"Ashkerr said, leaning back,"You are correct. There is a lot of risk with going after such a prize, Captain Mina..is the price worth what you seek?"
My gaze narrowed but I managed to keep my voice steady,"If you mean to hint if I am hesitant, then I am not, Captain Ashkerr. As you know, my numbers are great. Far greater than your own, if I may be so bold. We would be doing you a favor by assisting you."
He was quiet for a few moments, scowling across the table at me, before he sat back and propped his grimy boots on the table,"It is not the process of obtaining the item of which I speak, but the consequences of possessing such a thing. There is much..old magic, surrounded by it."
"I am very much aware,"I countered,"I and my crew are more than willing to assist you, however we call for half the loot and nothing less, considering the risk."
The old man seemed to debate it for a moment and finally nodded,"Fine. However, the item is under the protection of King Adrian."
I didn't miss a beat. I wasn't going to be put out by this man,"Fortress walls have not stopped us before, as you know."
"This is no ordinary fortress,"Ashkerr replied,"The castle has never been taken, as I'm sure you must know."
"I do not plan to take the castle, but sneak in undiscovered,"I replied with a slight smile, my gaze unblinking as I looked at him.
He did not waver but laughed mirthlessly once,"And how do you plan to get your men past the guards?"
"From what I have heard the anniversary of the dear King's rule is coming up soon, and the Adencians plan to have a celebration..well, fit for a King. Our Adrian would not turn down some entertainment from a band of friendly gypsies, would he?"
Slowly, the old man's thin lips turned up into a smirk of satisfaction,"My dear Mina, your reputation precedes you..."